Police

Sluggishness of Police Reform Feeds Frustration

George Floyd's death triggered a long overdue cultural reckoning with race-related issues and inequities. It will be too bad, though, if the policing issues that set off the protests are forgotten.

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Twenty-five years ago, The Los Angeles Times published a two-part investigative series I wrote about fatal shootings by police in Ventura County.

The first article quoted both grieving relatives and police officers who themselves were traumatized after the shootings. "My son is dead. I want to know why," said the mother of a 23-year-old who was shot by police after he had leveled an empty shotgun at them.

The second article explored the possibility of preventing such shootings through technology, policies, and training. It quoted a county prosecutor who investigated the shootings and who suggested that because so many of the people shot in justifiable homicides are drunk or under the influence of drugs, a reduction in substance abuse might help reduce the numbers of times police have to shoot people.

Protests after the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police sent me back to these old news articles. Floyd wasn't shot, but his death raises similar issues. I wondered what, if anything, has changed.

The anger and frustration in reaction to Floyd's death, after all, surely has something to do with the feeling that this has been a known issue for decades now but has not been solved. That grim truth is unavoidable when reading these old news articles in the context of current developments.

That feeling is a nationwide phenomenon. My former New York Sun colleague Errol Louis, himself the son of a New York police inspector, wrote a column enumerating cases in New York from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. "Demonstrations against police misconduct get particularly heated because communities remember prior injustices. Layer after layer of incidents over the years become part of a litany of cases stretching across decades," he wrote, describing it as "a catalogue of pain and grievance passed down across generations in black communities."

As The Washington Post put it in a 2019 article, "Years of controversial police shootings, protests, heightened public awareness, local police reforms and increased officer training have had little effect on the annual total." The headline of that article? "Four Years in a Row, police nationwide fatally shoot nearly 1,000 people."

The post-George Floyd protests have blossomed into a broader, long overdue cultural reckoning with race-related issues and inequities. It will be too bad, though, if the policing issues that set off the protests are forgotten amid a focus instead on other only distantly related topics such as antiracism education in elementary schools or reparations for slavery.

The final quote—the "kicker," in newspaper jargon—in the solutions-from-experts part of my police-shootings series came from George Kelling, a criminology researcher and the author, with James Q. Wilson, the author of the influential March 1982 Atlantic article "Broken Windows: The police and neighborhood safety."

"To George Kelling, who teaches policing at Harvard and Northeastern universities, the answer is community policing—putting more officers on foot patrol on regular beats to solve problems in neighborhoods they know," I wrote.

Kelling told me, "When you've got police officers that are remote from communities, where they're kept in cars, you've got edgy police, frightened police, and that's where you get problems."

I didn't disclose it in the 1995 Times article, but Kelling had been my professor in a Harvard class, "Workshop in Criminal Justice: Municipal Policing."

As Kelling and Wilson had described it in the "Broken Windows" article, a careful, scientific study of Newark, N.J., found that "officers walking beats had higher morale, greater job satisfaction, and a more favorable attitude toward citizens in their neighborhoods than did officers assigned to patrol cars."

I tested the proposition as a student in Kelling's class by spending part of a night with Cambridge, Mass., police officers walking the beat, and part of it in the back seat of a police car. Precisely as the theory predicted, the officers in the car described the area as dangerous and drug-infested, while the ones on foot described the same exact streets as a pretty good neighborhood. The officers in the car drove out of the neighborhood to pick up dinner; the ones on foot stopped in at a local establishment.

Kelling died in 2019 and Wilson died in 2012, after significant crime reductions (the causes of which are hotly debated) but before either man could help police or any other government- or human-run agency achieve anything close to perfection. In unionized government bureaucracies and even in many other human organizations, change is hard and slow.

Let's hope, though, that the changes needed now finally happen quickly enough that I'm not needed back making these same points again in another 25 years, which would be 2045.

NEXT: Joe Biden Isn't Ready To End Qualified Immunity

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  1. If there is one thing that is going to stop real police reform, it is these protests turning into riots because they are being run by BLM and Antirfa, who are both Marxist terrorist groups. It is pretty hard to sell people on reforming the police when there are mobs burning down and terrorizing cities all over America.

    When that happens, people stop giving a shit about what the police do to whom and just want law and order by whatever means necessary. BLM is an obstacle to any real police reform. If you align yourself with violent Marxist retards, your political cause isn’t going to go very far.

    1. No peace; no justice.

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    2. BLM activists have murdered more unarmed black people than in just a few months than police did all last year. And the loudest democrats and media are supportive. Democrat federal representatives on their knees with Kente cloths around their neck, showing not only their ideological pandering but their complete lack of understanding of what the cloths represent. They may as well have worn Jefferson Davis bandannas. The idiocy of the pandemic might have given them a chance against Trump, but their support of this violent rioting by Marxists will ensure Trump remains president.

  2. If you are concerned about “remote” police, then you may have to hire more police, to have more police on the beat.

    Europe spends more of its economy on the police than the U.S. does. Perhaps as a result, Europe has both a lower murder rate and a lower rate of killings by the police.

    More cops on the beat means they spend more time getting to know the communities they serve. That makes them more knowledgeable and effective and less likely to get into unnecessary violent encounters.

    Cutting police spending will often harm minorities most, as the murder rate increases. In 2018, 45% of all murder victims were black, 89% of whom were killed by another black person.

    That relates to this passage in the article above:
    “Kelling told me, ‘When you’ve got police officers that are remote from communities, where they’re kept in cars, you’ve got edgy police, frightened police, and that’s where you get problems.'”

    1. Actually London has had higher murder rates than New York. That’s why they’ve proposed making pointy knives illegal and providing tax relief for purchases of knife proof vests. Killers gonna kill.

  3. >>a long overdue cultural reckoning with race-related issues and inequities.

    what the fuck dude? this is not a nation full of hateful people. fucking insulting to have that bullshit glued to an entire culture

    1. Correct.

      However, leftism is 100% hateful.
      And too many of its adherents have decided that if they won’t be happy, you must be kept from happiness too.

      1. I smile all friendly right at those people when I tell them to fuck off.

    2. Example #3,737 that Reason writers live in a progressive bubble that believes most of the country is full of clinger Neanderthals.

    3. 100% agree with that, the majority of Americans are good people. I think democrats have even managed to alienate mainstream blacks. “Now that we didn’t just allow but encouraged BLM to burn your businesses we’re going to replace the police in your neighborhoods with social workers”

  4. Sluggishness? It’s the speed and panicky reaction that’ll probably doom it to failure. We went from “George who?” to the Minneapolis police being entirely defunded in a couple of weeks.

    1. Don’t you find it odd that while Minneapolis has been run by Democrats for 40 years the police department is so full of murderous racists it has to be disbanded completely? Omar herself said it was “rotten to the core”. Isn’t that core Democratic?

      1. ^ This.
        Police departments work for city government. City government hands the police chief the law enforcement priorities. If those priorities include cracking down on people selling loose cigarettes to enforce the city tobacco tax, or funding a good portion of the city budget with traffic stops, that’s what the police are going to do. And they aren’t going to do it in the gated communities.

        If your city council has been promising to reform the police department since the 1991 Rodney King riots, and nothing has changed, your problem isn’t the police. Fire the city council.

  5. Sluggishness is supposed to be a feature, not a bug, of representative government. It is supposed to let passions cool so to limit rash, illconsidered laws from being implemented.

    1. This issue has been on the back burner for a very long time. We passed “sluggishness” a long time ago.

  6. ” . . . 23-year-old who was shot by police after he had leveled an empty shotgun at them.
    The second article explored the possibility of preventing such shootings through technology, policies, and training”

    I can’t wait for the second installment where we learn what technology and training will enable a police officer to determine the shotgun aimed at him is unloaded. The only policy to prevent that shooting would be to require a cop to wait until they are shot before shooting themselves. Then you won’t need to defund the police; there won’t be any.

  7. Oh, you’re frustrated?

    Fuck you and all leftists.
    Our patience is wearing thin with you.

    1. And many people’s patience is wearing thin with being abused by police.

      1. The public’s patience is wearing thin with being abused by criminals.

      2. I mean, they could do what I did – move to someplace where the police don’t abuse people.

        That doesn’t mean a rich gated community either. Tons of places where the cops just want to collect that paycheck with minimal fuss so they don’t bother anyone they don’t have to.

        1. Everywhere should be where police do not abuse people.

  8. Libertarians for quick change. Surely that will work out.

    1. If the change is applying the NAP to government by prohibiting it from initiating force yeah that would definitely work out.

  9. “My son is dead. I want to know why,” said the mother of a 23-year-old

    I think we do know why.

    who was shot by police after he had leveled an empty shotgun at them.

    I mean, I hate the police as much as the next guy, but geez Rick, if you’re pointing shotguns at people (cops or not) you’re gonna get shot.

    1. Hey, pointing a shotgun at someone is wrong, and he should be punished, but should the punishment be the death penalty?
      – Reason Liberaltarians

      1. Yes, if someone points a shotgun at you shoot them. Libertarians aren’t pacifists. The right to self defense is one of the big ones.

    2. Well, there is the question of if he actually pointed a shotgun at Cops, or for that matter even had a shotgun at all.

      Take our word on it isn’t exactly good enough

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  11. It’s not a race relations problem it’s a drug prohibition problem. Blacks sell illegal drugs so cops fuck with them it’s not rocket science. End drug prohibition and cops will have to go write tickets or something.

  12. “”My son is dead. I want to know why,” said the mother of a 23-year-old who was shot by police after he had leveled an empty shotgun at them.”

    Shouldn’t be that hard to figure out why. Work it out.

  13. “It quoted a county prosecutor who investigated the shootings and who suggested that because so many of the people shot in justifiable homicides are drunk or under the influence of drugs, a reduction in substance abuse might help reduce the numbers of times police have to shoot people.”

    Yay! Ramp up the War on Drugs, and bring back Prohibition.

    What could possibly go wrong?

  14. I am going to be quite heartbroken if the only reform that comes out of this is a new photo on my Aunt Jemina pancake mix. Why can’t people stay focused on what really needs to change?

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